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Robert Heinlein and Sex

Robert Heinlein and Sex

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Published by Ian Bertram
About the rather strange attitudes to sex expressed in Heinlein's stories
About the rather strange attitudes to sex expressed in Heinlein's stories

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Categories:Types, Reviews, Book
Published by: Ian Bertram on May 17, 2007
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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07/13/2013

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Robert Heinleinis rightly regarded as one of thegiants of Science Fiction.He and a select few others transformed SF from the generally poorly written shockers of the1920s and 30s to a mature literary genre. His longevity as a writer was borne hometo me a few weeks ago when I picked one of my Heinlein novels off the shelf andrealised that I have been reading and rereading his books for almost 50 years.Clearly I have continued to find something of value in that period, but reflecting on it, Irealised that both what I found in them and my reaction to that has changedsignificantly since those early days. I think this change began with “I Will Fear NoEvil” (seealso) which I found rather disappointing. I enjoyed the basic premise, but I didn’t really swallow the metaphysical stuff about the survival of the soul after deathand found the treatment of male/female relationships rather silly.I cannot remember which of his stories I read first. I suspect it was “Starman Jones”,which for some reason I can remember discussing with a school friend in about 1959. Early on I also read “By His Bootstraps” (online), “Orphans of the Sky” and Methuselah’s Children”. I can be certain about this because I still have my BritishScience Fiction Book Club editions of the RobertConquest/KingsleyAmis anthology Spectrum” (containing “By his Bootstraps”) and of “Methuselah’s Children” and“Orphans of the Sky”. In passing I must point out that the SFBC published somecracking stuff then, by some giants of SF. In addition to those mentioned, I still havetheir editions of books byJ G Ballard (“Four Dimensional Nightmare”, “Drowned World”,Poul Anderson(“Twilight World”, “Guardians of Time”),Algys Budrys(“The Unexpected Dimension”),John Brunner  (“No Future in It”),Arthur Clarke(“Tales of  Ten Worlds”, “Fall of Moondust”),Hal Clement(“Needle”),Walter Miller   (“Conditionally Human”) and several others.In my early days reading Science Fiction, and like most teenagers, I would have saidif asked that I preferred the ‘hard’SF – stories based I suppose on whizz-bang technology, with lots of action around gadgets and scientific gimmicks. I hadn’tdiscovered the ‘Lensmanseries by then but I’m sure I would have loved them. I remember for example reading huge numbers of the Badger books, appalling as they were, so stories like those of Heinlein were a revelation, by incorporatingtechnology in a much more sophisticated way than the stuff churned out byLionelFanthorpefor Badger Books .I said that my reaction to Heinlein has changed with time. What that means is that Ibegan to realise that he was more than just a writer of whizz-bang fantasies. As Iread more I noticed that he has a number of themes in his stories that he returns tomany times. He writes a lot about sex for example – at least in his books after Stranger in a Strange Land” and it becomes an increasingly large proportion of anygiven novel as he grows older. That is not intrinsically wrong, but he generally doesn’tdo it very well and the odd bit of more explicit stuff is simply embarrassing. I seem torecall he was nominated for the 'Bad Sex Award" but I can't find a link - something todo with nipples crinkling probably! He has also frequently tackled political themes or more specifically he is obsessed with the idea of liberty and personal freedom withthe obvious example being “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, although “Farnham’s Freehold” also deals with it explicitly and the concept turns up even in his ‘juveniles’ –Star Beast” for example where the character ‘Betty’ although a minor has divorcedher parents!Time Travelis another favourite represented in my mind bymasterpieces like “By His Bootstraps” or “All You Zombies” but also a key element in most of his later work and in earlier novels like “The Door into Summer ”.Alexei Panshin, in thearticle that appears to have triggered Heinlein’s feudwith him, suggested that Heinlein had never really grown up in sexual terms – that heremained an adolescent. There is a degree of prurience about sex in some of theearly stories that tends to support this thesis. However at the time Panshin was
 
writing, most of Heinlein’s novels dealing with sexual matters were still to bepublished and I want to look at whether this conclusion is still appropriate..I have to confess that I find Heinlein’s exploration of sexual themes in these later books disturbing. Although books like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger”allegedly promote an open attitude to sex and sexuality, his final series of books goesfar beyond that, dealing extensively with incest and child sex. In “To Sail Beyond theSunset” for example, his main protagonistMaureen Johnson(mother of Lazarus Long) connives with her husband to enable him to have sex with two of his daughters – one of them sixteen at the time. She also tries to seduce her own father andspeculates on whether he has had sex with one of his granddaughters. Stripped of itsSF elements and submitted without Heinlein’s name attached I wonder how easilysuch a sleazy tale would have found a publisher. A lot of the sexual element of thestory is covered by misdirection aboutMrs Grundy’, but in real terms a significant element is about child abuse, justified moreover in terms that any paedophile wouldrecognise. Positive representations of incest also turn up in Job”, “Farnham’s Freehold” and “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” and most explicitly in “Time Enough for Love” where Lazarus Long makes love to his mother Maureen – asequence reprised in “Sunset” as part of the wider sequence of incest involving Long,Maureen and her husband, their two daughters and Maureen’s father.The most explicit example of what I can only call a fixation on young girls – other than ‘Sunset’ - is probably ‘The Door into Summer ’ where the hero Dan Davis uses acombination of ‘cold sleepand time travel to persuade the 11 year old daughter of  his business partner to take cold sleep herself when she reaches 21 so that he canmarry her, having gone back into cold sleep himself to come out at the same time. Asimilar situation arises in “Time for the Stars”, although in this case the hero hasbeen in telepathic communication with the young girl since she was a baby as hetravels on an interstellar expedition. The effects of relativity allow her to age so thatwhen he returns to earth he can marry her.Examples of this fixation can be found to a greater or lesser degree throughout hiswork. In “Moon” for example, describing the death of Ludmilla, one of Mannie’swives, he writes, “An explosive bullet hit between her lovely, little-girl breasts”. InCat” there is an extended and sexually charged discussion of the delights of spanking a 13-year-old girl. In “Time Enough for Love” Lazarus Long marries a youngwoman he first meets as a very young child of about 6 years old, his longevityserving the same purpose as time travel and relativity did in “Summer” and “Stars”.Even in his so-called ‘juveniles’ there is a usually a strong dissonance between theactual behaviour and the calendar age of his female characters, all of themdemonstrating extreme precocity.While it is a measure of the way Heinlein can roll his stories forward that theseelements do not immediately leap off the page, they still form such a substantial partof his later work. This is important, not only for what it might say about Heinlein theman, but also because this rather obsessive attention to incest and the sexualattractiveness of pubescent girls had I think a significant damaging impact on thequality of his work. According toPanshin,Heinlein said that “Stranger” was adeliberate attempt to challenge every tenet of western civilisation. One can becharitable and assume that this applies to a greater or lesser degree to all his work.Taking this at face value, we can therefore reasonably ask if he succeeds or if hesimply titillates.There are examples where the sexual content impacts directly on the story line.Zombies” for example has incest at the core of the story – if impregnating yourself can be described as incest – but it does so without titillation and in the process wrapsup in a dramatic fashion many of the paradoxes of time travel. In “Summer” however,

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